Moves to more aggressively enforce Nebraska’s liquor laws could one day close the sad chapter of tiny Whiteclay and its beer stores that prey on people’s addictions.
If this new approach works, Nebraskans should thank Whiteclay activists, Attorney General Doug Peterson, Gov. Pete Ricketts, the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission and a bipartisan list of state senators.
They’ve cracked open the door to hope.
The Attorney General’s Office, after investigating Whiteclay liquor sales at the request of the liquor commission, has issued 22 citations, including allegations that the stores illegally sell beer to bootleggers.
And the Legislature voted 42-0 to advance Legislative Bill 407, co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks and Republican Sen. Tom Brewer, to create a task force to study Whiteclay’s problems and determine what might help address them.
Four beer stores in the unincorporated village of about a dozen people sell the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer a year, largely to residents of the dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
The stores already faced an April 7 hearing before the liquor commission to determine whether Whiteclay, with no local police force, has adequate law enforcement to support the four liquor licensees. Rushville, the nearest town with regular law enforcement, is at least 20 minutes away.
Now the stores’ owners face a separate hearing on the state’s latest allegations. Both hearings have the potential to lead to the stores’ closures.
Even if that occurred, the underlying problems wouldn’t disappear. The Whiteclay area has little or no infrastructure in place to address generational alcoholism — no detox facilities, scarce counselors and scant jobs and job training.
That’s why the Legislature’s efforts matter. And they shouldn’t stop at the state border.
Ricketts, working with state senators, should reach out to South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard to hold discussions that could produce meaningful results. Tribal council leaders and federal agencies ought to be a part of the process, too.
Stricter liquor law enforcement could be the start of something new — the culmination of meetings that started in October 2015 between the governor, attorney general, liquor control commissioners and Native American leaders.
Ricketts and Peterson said then that they wanted to give Whiteclay a fresh look. Peterson said he was looking to develop a “sustainable” law enforcement response.
“I am very much encouraged,” said Frank LaMere, a Winnebago Indian activist who has called for years for the beer stores’ closure.
It’s a stark change from decades of lax enforcement and look-the-other-way local and state politics — a welcome shift for the people of Pine Ridge and Nebraskans ashamed of Whiteclay.